Robert Lee Carter
National Visionary

Born March 11, 1917 in Careyville, Florida

Judge; one of the lead attorneys for Brown v. Board of Education

Civil Rights activist, lawyer and judge, Robert Lee Carter has advocated for equal rights for black Americans during the Civil Rights movement and beyond.  His most notable work and success was as a lawyer for the Brown vs. Board of Education case that overturned segregation within public schools, one of the most important Supreme Court cases of the 20th Century.

Robert Lee Carter was born in Careyville, Florida on March 11, 1917.  As many African Americans were traveling from the South to the North and westward, in what is known as the Great Migration, Carter’s father, Robert Carter moved to Newark, New Jersey to look for work, while his mother, Annie Martin Carter followed shortly after Carter’s birth.  His father passed away when Carter was only a year old and Carter’s mother worked as a domestic to help support her family.

Carter skipped two grades during his early education in the Newark and East Orange, New Jersey public school systems and graduated from East Orange High School at age 16, in 1933.  In 1937, he graduated from Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania, magna cum laude with a degree in political science. In 1940, Carter earned a law degree from Howard University in Washington DC; and in 1941, Carter earned his master’s in law from Columbia Law School, after writing an influential master’s thesis that would later define the NAACP’s legal strategy on the right to freedom of association under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Carter was then drafted into the United States Army Air Corps where he served in World War II as an officer in a segregated unit.

After being discharged in 1944, Carter began his law career by joining the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Legal Defense and Educational Fund.  He began as a legal assistant to civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall.  He was involved in challenging and defeating racism in various realms, including colleges, labor unions, voting laws, housing and hiring practices. 

Carter (second from left) with the
NAACP Legal Defense Fund team
In particular, Robert Carter’s most notable accomplishment was his successful use of social science and psychology in the Brown vs. Board of Education case.  Carter employed studies documenting that black girls preferred to play with white dolls over black dolls; the children attributed negative traits to the black dolls and positive traits to the white dolls.  His argument contended that black children developed inferiority complexes as a result of the racist separate-but-equal state-sponsored school system. Carter’s strategy was successful and the case overturned the segregation policies within the public school system. Carter was also involved in the NAACP’s representation of students who challenged segregation policies through sit-ins at North Carolina lunch counters.  These protest activities led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  In January of 1965, Carter and several other activists spent time in Mississippi testing the Civil Rights Act. The group desegregated many public places that formerly maintained separate facilities for blacks and whites, including restaurants and hotels.

This interview has
been archived in the
NVLP Collection of
African American
Oral Histories at the
Library of Congress
American Folklife
In 1956, Carter became head of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.  Throughout his career at the NAACP, from 1944 to 1968, Carter argued or co-argued and won twenty-one of twenty-two cases in the Supreme Court. Carter left the NAACP in 1968, and was senior partner at Freidin, Prashker, Feldman and Gartner in New York, NY from 1968-1972. Carter soon continued his service to the American public in 1972 when President Richard Nixon appointed Carter a federal judge in New York City.  He later became a senior judge in 1986. Carter served as United States delegate to United Nations Conferences on Crime and Treatment of Offenders in Stockholm in 1965 as well as the Conference of African Jurists on African Legal Process and Individual Rights in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1971.  He also co-founded the National Conference of Black Lawyers and was a co-chairman from 1968-1982. Throughout his career as a lawyer and judge, Carter has taught at many law school facilities, including Michigan, Yale, and New York University. 

President Bill Clinton awarded Judge Carter America’s highest civilian honor: the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 1995. Carter was presented with the Thurgood Marshall Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.  Carter has written extensively about race, discrimination and law, and in 2005 published his autobiography A Matter of Law: A Memoir of Struggle in the Cause of Equal Rights.

Carter lives in New York and still serves as a federal judge for the U.S. District Court in the Southern District of New York.  With his wife Gloria Pamela Spencer (now deceased), Judge Carter has two children, John and David.


Robert Lee Carter's biography on Answers.com

Oliver Hill's Visionary Page (Part of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund team)

URL (Click to bookmark): http://www.visionaryproject.org/carterrobertlee